Does God allow suffering?

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At home with family, discussing that strange and unprecedented conversation between God and the devil in Job.

Then the Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.’

‘Does Job fear God for nothing?’ Satan replied. ‘Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.’

The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.’

Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

Job 1.8-12

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He says, it reads like a Greek myth where the gods consult together and decisions are made about the mortals from the clouds.

I say, it has stuck to me all my life like a a burr, it’s a problem and its tiny barbs have got under my skin.

This is the story of Job. God casually agrees to a little sport with Job, a man who has had life too easy. Material loss, tragic death and philosophical miseries follow. Job’s friends torment him with the kind of poor theology I will try and spare you here, until 40 chapters on Job hears the voice of God reminding him of a few home truths, his fortunes are restored and everyone lives happily ever after. Everyone apart from those of us who still have residual questions about this version of God. Whilst Job lights the fire under his burnt offering and invites his neighbours over to celebrate the happy ending, I wonder how to balance the tricky question of God’s good will and all the trouble it caused?

I get to thinking later, God’s good will and all the trouble it caused: the crux of this story is surely the cross. These words in Job are not like Homer, Sophocles or Euripides they are like Gethsemane and the prayers of Christ himself. Amongst the dust of the olive grove I can enter the problem of pain and re-work the words in Job. When I read the philosophical discourse on suffering in Job in parallel with the gospel stories of Christ, my version of God is changed.

photoJesus in Jerusalem, facing his final days, piece by painful piece showing and telling his followers, who he is, what must happen and what will follow on. “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Death precedes the miracle, but the disciples don’t yet understand.

On the day of the passover feast Jesus has plans for himself and his friends. He wants to tell them more plainly what will happen and it’s all about how he must die. “Do you understand?” he asks them over and over again. Time is running out. Afterwards they talk through this together, remembering teachings from scripture, parables and all the things he did and said. But for now they do not see and they do not hear, though death and pain and suffering are all around and getting closer.

It is heaving in Jerusalem. People from every place have come here and they have their own business to do, with God and with each other. They do it in the temple court yards, in the purchase of a bird or an animal for sacrifice, they hear the scriptures read from the scrolls, they sit amongst scholars, rabbis and itinerant teachers, listen and learn. Others on the edges wander the streets, nowhere to sleep, they mumble their complaints and questions, rebels and radicals and the discontent. They are sick, starving and have come nursing twisted limbs, festering wounds, tumors and undiagnosed complaints that cripple and cry out from every street corner and begging bowl.

They have loved and lost, then loved some more and lost again. They have fallen, gotten up and been knocked to the ground again. They have trusted ,been betrayed, and they do not know if they can trust again.

Amongst the ancient olive trees, in a place where anyone can walk, Jesus kneels, even falls to the ground, and He prays. He has said to his Father “All I have is yours, and all you have is mine”, he has said, “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me” and “You and I are one”. He feels the ground beneath his bent knees and all around the ancient olive trunks wider than a man, the thin grass and the sand. The solid rock under him seems unsure, as it crumbles away, I wonder what heaven sound he heard?

His friends fall asleep, but this is no private moment, he is on public display and all of heaven listens. Of all the withdrawn desert days of secret sojourns in the mountains or on the far side of the lake, was there ever a praying dialogue quite like this? The sound of God the Father and God the Son in conversation with satan himself? All of eternity is poised to fall once again or to be lifted and turned in its course. When the Father speaks the others listen. Maybe this is what he said, Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.

We are invited into the terror of Gethsemane every time we ask why and when we feel our experience is so painful it will turn us away from our God. And we are not deceived, the experience is painful and it could turn us away from God. In Gethsemane the choice was as dire as it looked and much much worse. On the other side of Gethsemane there is a miracle waiting to happen and we see it from deep inside because God has chosen us to be participators and not spectators in the things of heaven and the things of earth.

There were angels in the dusty olive groove. They were amongst the branches of the trees like birds, white robed in light, there to strengthen him. Their silky hems dragged in the dirt as they whisper open heaven songs. Ancient songs that told of how it was supposed to be, how it will yet be and how close it had become: no more tears, no more pain, no more suffering; true words, true world, just a sob away.

Does God allow suffering? Yes, it would seem that he does, but never as the end of the story, so we must enter into the story …

Kneel with this God in Gethsemane and hear Him say,

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

John 16.33

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2 thoughts on “Does God allow suffering?

  1. Love the image of entering into the story.
    I can’t understand it, and I often wonder about Job’s wife and children and their suffering, however in the end I make the choice to enter the redemption story, to look further, towards the next chapter and the next and know that there is a song to be sung.

    • I agree. it just shows how, we will never know the full answer and the small answers we do find are just a series of pointers towards something greater and more hopeful. And I’m so grateful for all the people who choose hope rather than despair or simply nothing at all.

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